by Ashraf Osman

Stories by Ashraf Osman
The Stench
© Ashraf Osman 2003 -2023

A loud grunt in the plane’s engines woke him up. Almost instantly, a scorching dryness took hold of his throat. He reached out for the glass of water on the out-folded tray next to him. He thought again how lucky he was to have nobody sitting on the seat next to him. He struggled to open his eyes but they felt sticky and dry, and his eyelids heavy, as if glued shut with cheap glue. He could never stand his contacts when he first wakes up. Especially in the dry air of airplanes. He wanted to slap himself for dozing off with his contacts in. He lifted the shade on his window. Below he was able to make out Beirut drenched in darkness as always. The faint flicker of candlelight and kerosene lamps in the windows gave the city an almost elegant shimmering blackness from where he sat. Like a taffeta dress, he thought. Anticipation welled up in him like a dark viscous metallic liquid, and a strange visceral comfort washed over him at the thought of all of the awaiting faces of his family behind the glass at the airport. He could already see the glimmering glint of release dancing in their eyes. He closed his eyes and immersed himself in the warmth of his thoughts. A very wide smile beamed on his face, but didn’t last for long. His reverie was rudely interrupted by the recollection of the fat face of the Maltese flight attendant informing him that his second suitcase didn’t make it on this plane. He wondered when it would catch up with him. He had all of his underwear in that suitcase. He looked around him at the people starting to shift in their seats. How he despised them! How he wished he could pass for a foreigner, for an alien amongst them. But he felt depressingly bound to them, as if by an invisible cord.

At the airport he could not wait for his suitcase to come out.  When it finally did poke its wide green head, after twelve sluggish and uncomfortably awkward minutes, he felt an acute gaping void at the thought of his other suitcase stranded somewhere overseas. He tried to think of his family waiting for him less than a hundred yards away. The thought gave him the energy to give his cart a hearty initial push, and the cart glided across the freshly polished linoleum floor. He turned the corner clumsily, and the glass emerged from behind the blank white wall. He started scanning the faces behind the glass carefully, meticulously, fearing that somehow he’d skip over the familiar faces of his parents, his brother and sister. He pushed his cart slowly, brewing a smile underneath his searching eyes. The mullions of the glass rolled one after the other beside him in a faultless hypnotic rhythm, and then they stopped. He was outside. He brought his cart to a halt, turned around, stepped onto its ledge and scanned the crowd again. But there was not a single familiar face. They must have overslept, he thought; it was four in the morning after all. He turned around, scanned the vast sterile Arrivals hall for a payphone, but there was none. There was only the setup for them, finished with aluminum dividers, but no phones. They probably still haven’t got to it, he thought, feeling exasperated more than ever at the sluggish Reconstruction process. The mechanical "Fur Elise” of a cell phone behind him startled him. If only Beethoven knew what became of his love child, he thought. He waited for the burly man with the phone to finish his call, and approached him. "Excuse me, do you mind if I use your phone for a minute? My parents were supposed to pick me up, but must have overslept.” "I’m sorry, but I’m all out of units. Really sorry.” He thanked him, shoved his cart with a grunt, and headed outside. The night air felt crisp, nippy. A shudder ran through him. He shook it off, and hailed a cab. "El-Borj, El-Menchieh.”

He rolled down his window and took a deep broad breath. The cold night air filled his lungs with the smell of damp soil, car exhaust, and the sweet sickening smell of rotting garbage. He closed his eyes and smiled. Beside him rolled familiar streetscapes that were now magically transformed by the sordid emptiness of that hour of the night. It’s amazing how the same and different they feel, he thought. As if they were only reincarnated recollections of things he knew. And then the familiar corner of their street, and the shabby old apartment building he calls home emerged into sight, a four-story hulk of early modernist architecture. A thing of utter plainness, he thought. "Here, thank you.” The cab slowed to a stop. He took his suitcase, and rolled it onto the old terrazzo driveway, and craned his neck upwards, taking in the building, looking dreary and immense in the moonlight. Fuck, he thought, how will I lift this bitch up with no elevator? He dragged the suitcase, which was feeling heavier by the second with his growing fatigue, and dumped it at the bottom of the staircase. It produced a muffled thud and a cloud of dust that filled his nostrils. He coughed, waved it away from his face, and walked back to the intercom. Strange, he thought, I wonder why they took the nametag off the buzzer. He pressed it, but it made no sound. It always slipped him that the thing needed electricity, a rare commodity in this part of the world. He took a deep breath, stifled a growing ill defined anger within him, and started climbing the dark stairs. He felt his way in the dark like a blind man. It astonished him how well he remembered it, the number of steps of every flight, every turn and bend and chip of the steps. He mentally patted himself for his excellent memory, and counted on. On the fourth story he stopped, out of breath, and started panting. He waited a few seconds to collect his breath before knocking. The familiar hollow resounding sound of his knuckles tapping on the door comforted him. He waited, brewing yet another smile. They sleep like fucking logs, he thought. He pounded harder, put his ear to the door, but could hear no footsteps. The silence suffocated him. He felt thirsty suddenly.  Anxiety simmered in him like a foul-smelling stew, took hold of his being, choked him. And then the first sob burst out of him out of nowhere, shaking him violently as he tore down the stairs. He hurtled down as if possessed, his eyes shut, his ears filled by the echo of his sobs. And then he felt it, a bony tube of sorts underneath his right foot. He tripped, cart-wheeled down the flight, and crashed onto the landing as a deafening shriek, almost inhuman, filled the air. It came from a few steps above his sprained head, and sounded eerily familiar. "You son of a bitch!” he heard. "Can’t you see where the fuck you’re stepping?” The familiarity of the voice disturbed him. He looked up, and he realized why. It was Jaipur, his cat, curled on himself nursing his tail. "Jaipur!” he cried, and jumped onto the cat, engulfing him, inhaling the soothingly familiar smell of his fur. He didn’t know whether to be alarmed at his cat talking, or be reassured at the glint of recognition his saw in his eyes. "Hey, you’re smothering me! Away!” snapped the cat. "Remember me?” he asked, feeling silly as he spoke. "Yes, yes, I do. Get off me already!” He started to cry. "Where are they?” he implored. "Gone. They didn’t tell you?” "Where did they go?” he said in a panic. "I don’t know, they didn’t tell me. I just came back one day to find them gone.” He slowly started to sob again. He felt a migraine coming. He pressed his fingertips to his temples, and harrowed down the stairs. "Wait! Where are you going?” Jaipur yelled after him. He didn’t answer. He kept on running. The stairwell grew brighter the farther he ran down. It must be dawn, he thought. He reached the last landing, and slightly paused to collect his breath again. And then he noticed that his suitcase was gone. Fuck, he thought. Who’s up at this hour with nothing better to do than steal my suitcase?! He looked up hoping to see the thief in escape, and then it hit. The driveway wasn’t terrazzo anymore. It was gravel now. He looked up the street. It felt disconcertingly familiar. There was a pavement now, and instead of apartment buildings it had familiar rows of houses with sterile green lawns in front. He turned his head around very slowly, as if that would slow down the realization seeping unstoppably onto him, and there was his house in Princeton. He fell down to his knees, his head bent, heaving ever so slightly. Behind, a squirrel scampered up the birch tree on the front lawn, and he could hear the sounds of the street just starting to wake up, yawning and stretching its slender body like a cat.

Ashraf Osman

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